Name Your Healthcare Agent

Imagine this scenario: You or someone you love has a car accident. The doctors are ready to provide treatment and have a couple of different options; they need someone who can authorize the medical care. But the person who needs care is not conscious. Who would make the medical decision?

National Healthcare Decisions Day is April 16; it’s a day devoted to being prepared in case future healthcare decisions need to be made by a loved one for someone else. This process of thinking about future medical decisions, talking about those decisions with loved ones and medical providers, and documenting choices is called advance care planning (ACP). One of the most critical pieces of ACP is naming a healthcare agent or proxy. This person will make medical decisions for you only if you cannot.

Naming a healthcare agent is a big decision. So, what should you consider when deciding who should speak on your behalf?

Is this person 18 years or older? A person must be an adult to act as a healthcare agent. They do not have to be a family member, but they should be someone you trust.

Does this person want to do this role for you? Often, individuals will list friends or family as a healthcare agent without talking to them about the role. You want the person to say yes, so they can be prepared to advocate for you. Ask them directly if they will do it. If they don’t seem comfortable, find out why. It may be that they don’t feel like they have enough information to make decisions for you. Reassure them that you will prepare them.

Are they willing to talk to you about your choices? A big part of saying yes to the role of healthcare agent is discussing values and preferences. You want someone who will listen to what’s important to you and how you want to live. They need to understand the what and the why of your decisions. It’s impossible to know all the choices they may be given in a situation; knowing what you value and your reasons will help them navigate unexpected circumstances.

Are they good in difficult situations? Making medical decisions for someone you care about is not easy. A healthcare agent needs to be able to keep their head during a tough time and sometimes when it’s a crisis. That doesn’t mean they don’t cry or have emotions; it does mean that they can persevere through the challenge.

Will they follow your wishes even if they disagree with them? A healthcare agent is your voice in the room. When they speak on your behalf, it needs to be like you are speaking up yourself. Sometimes, loved ones may not agree with choices – and that’s OK. But the healthcare agent needs to put their opinions aside and do as you want.

If you don’t select your healthcare agent, medical care might be delayed, and you may not get the care you would prefer. It can be scary to think about the what-ifs, but naming a healthcare agent protects you and your loved ones just in case the what-if becomes what-is.

For help in documenting your choices, you can visit The Conversation Project or Prepare for Your Care.

Sources: National Institute on Aging; National Hospice & Palliative Care Organization; The Conversation Project; Prepare for Your Care.